When signs get personal

What do you think of signs like this? Do you find them cute and amusing, or do you find them annoying? Above all, do you find them effective for what they’re trying to do?

I must admit I rather like this sign, which I spotted on the luggage trolleys at Milton Keynes railway station. In one sense, the sign is redundant: if you’re looking for a luggage trolley, you don’t need a sign to tell you that you’ve found one. But I think the purpose of the sign is other than that. For one thing, it prompts someone with luggage to think of using a trolley, even if they weren’t looking for one. (We’ve all seen people struggling with wheelie suitcases who should really be using a trolley, for the benefit of other passengers if not themselves.) More important than that, though, the real purpose of the sign I think is to give a voice and identity to the station and the railway company: what discourse analysts call “subject positioning” [1]. The words on the sign are the sort of thing which might be said by someone who was considerate and helpful and attentive to your needs. The implication is that the station staff and the railway company collectively have the kind of personality which means they talk to you like that: polite, kind and helpful in a personal way. Contrast that with the sort of sign which you’re more likely to see on a luggage trolley:

Warning: trolleys MUST be returned to a designated point. Penalty for abandoned trolleys £500.

What kind of person says that? Someone who is bureaucratic and officious, and that’s the kind of personality such a sign attributes to an organisation which puts it up.

Such personal-sounding offers of help need to be carefully judged, of course. Those of my generation who used Microsoft Word 97 will remember the Office Assistant, which by default took the form of a cheery, cheeky animated paper clip, popping up unbidden at the least appropriate moments. I’m afraid the paper clip’s conversations with me generally did not go well.

Office Assistant: It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?
Me: No! Sod off!

I think the reason the Office Assistant’s appearance was so annoying is that it was intrusive: it actually interrupted what you were doing (such as writing a letter) and demanded that you respond to it before you could continue. Although the notice on the trolley hails you as a carrier of luggage – subject positioning again – this is not annoying in the same way; if you’re not part of the target audience, you simply disregard the hail and walk on, though perhaps with a pleasant lingering appreciation for the fact that HAD you needed help with your luggage it would have been available.

The relevance of this for education, specifically for learning materials, is that often you want to address the learner personally and directly. This is an illusion of course, just as a TV presenter talking to you directly is an illusion because what they’re actually talking to is a television camera. [2] Nevertheless, when it’s done right, it feels natural and unremarkable, even though the writer or presenter cannot see you and knows nothing about you and what you are thinking and feeling; you only notice it when it goes wrong and the illusion is broken.

The reason authors of learning materials, like TV presenters, try to address the members of their audience individually and directly, is that it sets up a personal relationship and introduces emotional warmth into the communication. The standard for learning materials is to use the second person (“you”) and contractions (“as you’ve seen”), resembling spoken language more than written language. A common stylistic model is what Derek Rowntree many years ago called “a tutorial in print” [3]: you talk to the learner as though they were there with you, and invite responses from them. (“What would you do next in this situation?” “What do you make of this argument?”) This kind of writing has been fundamental to the learning materials of The Open University, both printed and online, since its inception in the 1970s.

This too can go wrong, of course. As with the Microsoft Office Assistant, eagerness to help can come across as patronising, if the reader or learner is fully capable of managing by themselves; there’s an OU legend of the course materials which at one point suggested to the learner that they should take a coffee break if it was all getting too much. But there are many OU students who are grateful for a supportive tone; I remember one telling me how she’d been finding a particular section of her course hard going when she was delighted to read the materials’ reassurance that this topic was difficult and probably wouldn’t make sense until later. The perfect anticipation of what she was thinking and feeling not only encouraged her but reinforced her relationship with the course, communicating to her that the personality behind it was concerned for her and her success.

The OU was set up to bring higher education to people who had missed out on it earlier in life. Such people, frequently with a poor educational background, could not be expected to be familiar with formal study and the experience of a new subject being initially difficult but becoming easier with practice. They would therefore very likely be in need of assurance that the experience of difficulty is not a reason for thinking yourself incapable or for giving up. Postgraduate students, at the OU and elsewhere, can be expected to be better able to manage their own study, and can be safely left to self-regulate and negotiate normal difficulties for themselves, to say nothing of deciding when to have their own coffee breaks.

But I would argue that, even for experienced and sophisticated learners, learning materials should still embody that personal relationship implied by direct address. It’s what distinguishes education or training from an information dump. The illusion of the materials being a personal tutor – an illusion in which the learner acquiesces, just as we acquiesce in the illusion that a TV or radio presenter is talking to us – allows learning materials to do two very important things. The first is to support motivation – the great challenge in all distance learning – by giving comfort and encouragement. The second is to support self-management, by modelling how to mentally step back from the subject, the information, to reflect on the learner’s experience of its study; by internalising this supervisory voice, the learner eventually becomes better able to evaluate and regulate their learning for themselves.

The temptation when writing learning materials is to be factual and presentational. Getting personal, addressing the reader directly – and thinking about how they would like to be addressed – is something to which writers need to give deliberate attention .


[1] See for example Davies, B. and Harr√©, R. (1990), ‘Positioning: the discursive production of selves’, Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol 20, pp. 43-65.

[2] This point was powerfully illustrated by one of Michael Wesch’s anthropology students in the early years of YouTubeing, when she held up a mirror to her webcam to show us what she was actually talking to (in other words, not us) while making her video. (Wesch included the short video clip in his talk An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, timecode 21:38 to 22:03.)

[3] Rowntree, D. (1994), Preparing Materials for Open, Distance and Flexible Learning: An Action Guide for Teachers and Trainers, London, Kogan Page, p. 14. Lockwood, F. (1992), Activities in Self-Instructional Texts, London, Kogan Page, p. 25. See also my blog post ‘Alternatives to telling: what are we forgetting when we put education online?

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